Travelling over land and see to follow in the footsteps of relative who died in First World War

Dean Kirby visits the area around the Somme where his great-uncle George Grindley was injured during the First World War
Dean Kirby visits the area around the Somme where his great-uncle George Grindley was injured during the First World War

As the centenary of the First World War draws to a close, Dean Kirby goes in search of his great-uncle who joined the South Lancashire Regiment in 1916 and went to fight on the Somme

The sky is turning black as I roll my bicycle down a road once known to the British troops as Lucky Way and cut across the Somme

I have travelled over land and sea to reach this spot in northern France on a journey to find my great-grandfather’s brother - a soldier who never returned home from the First World War.

George Grindley was a 31-year-old father with brown hair and grey eyes. He lived with his wife, Pollie, and their daughters Alice and Elizabeth.

In the autumn of 1916, George kissed his girls goodbye and left his terraced house in the shadow of the armaments factory where he worked as an iron moulder and joined the 2nd South Lancashire Regiment.

He was off to fight in a war that had already claimed the lives of tens of thousands of men.

As I pedal up a sunken track known as the Stump Road that was once thick with German machine gun nests, I realise I am finally getting close to a relative who walked this way a century ago.

The path leads up a flight of steps and along a grass corridor lined with corn plants as tall as a man. They make unsettling noises as they twitch in the wind - a sound like scurrying rats.

Then suddenly I am pulling my bike across the ploughed field where my blood relative suffered a catastrophic injury over a century ago.

George knew the attack - what became known as the Battle of the Ancre Heights - was coming. For days, the fear of death had been building among the men.

His battalion, the 2nd South Lancashires, had practiced attacking lines of white tape before moving to the front in heavy rain, marching past piles of dead Germans still wearing gas masks.

As dawn broke on October 21, 1916, the Lancashire men waited uneasily at the top of a slope in a former German stronghold known as Stuff Redoubt. They had endured a sleepless night thanks to the German shells and a biting frost.

They had already suffered casualties as they defended a line of connected shell holes at Mouquet Farm. They had buried their dead including a man whose face was half blown away by shrapnel in shallow graves that were never found again.

A century on, local farmers still unearth remnants from the war including unexploded shells and soldiers’ bones.

It was exactly 12.06pm when whistles blew along the line. The men began pouring over the top in waves and started their downhill assault on the troops of the 5th Ersatz Division.

“The spirit of all ranks was wonderful and the men went over the parapet in fine style,” reads an entry in the battalion war diary.

I close my eyes and try to imagine the scene. Some of the men are advancing too fast and die beneath the creeping barrage of shells from 200 heavy British guns designed to protect them.

Others scuttle down the Stump Road - hurling bombs and firing Lewis guns as they destroy and capture the enemy machine guns.

And here I stand, half way down the same sloping field, caught in a strange no man’s land between the past and the future.

Somewhere near here, caught in a maelstrom of whizzing bullets and burning fragments of shrapnel, George fell to the ground with a devastating wound. He was 400 miles from Manchester and his wife and two daughters.

It is impossible, standing in this tranquil place, to fully imagine the horrific scenes that unfolded on that cold autumn afternoon.

But there are clues in the small Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery that looks up from the centre of this isolated field towards the heavy skies above Stump Redoubt.

Among the 391 graves - more than a quarter them unidentified - lie 25 of George’s comrades. They include 20-year-old Edward Burgess, whose headstone reveals something of the heartbreak felt back home. “To have, to love and then to part is the saddest story of a mother’s heart,” it says.

I am still searching the graves when a huge clap of thunder shakes me to the bone.

In a state of panic, I have no choice but to run with my bike bumping across the ploughed field and cycle as fast as I can down the uneven surface of the track to Lucky Way.

The man I am looking for is not in the cemetery. His body lies elsewhere.

Black storm clouds are giving chase as I ride my bicycle across the Somme – over farmland where my great-grandfather’s dying brother was carried a century ago.

He was carried from the battlefield by German prisoners and taken seven miles to a field ambulance station that stood ahead of me in the village of Bouzincourt.

They took 400 prisoners including a number of officers, who were caught by surprise and still in their dugouts.

But it was then that disaster struck. The Germans began directing shell fire onto their own lost trenches as snipers began picking off the Lancashire men.

The battalion suffered 28 killed, 133 wounded and 26 missing – and were forced to leave their dead on the field as they returned to the rear.

The survivors were sent “hearty congratulations” by Douglas Haig in a telegram.

George Grindley’s wife, Pollie, would also come to write her own heartbreaking note to the Army. “I have received no effects whatsoever – only his identification disc,” she said.

Torrential rain is pouring when I roll my bicycle through the village of Bouzincourt to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery where George lies buried.

On that fateful autumn evening in 1916, he succumbed to his wounds in one of the medical tents.

The immaculate graves made from Portland stone and planted with red Lancashire roses stand in serried ranks next to a farm where French cows watch visitors.

A man I can see running through the rain towards the cemetery’s stone shelter is Bob Thomson, 52, one of the commission’s senior head gardeners.

“It really starts to hit you when you’re weeding around the graves in the sunshine in spring,” he tells me.

“That’s when you think of the men who have died here. We are carrying this on for the families.”

I return to the cemetery at dusk to lay my wreath of poppies – the first member of my family to do so in a century.

“Thank you George,” is all I am able to write.